by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2014—Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK, near America
Anxious about corruption and political instability in their ancestral country—and threats to their child from murderous street gangs—an impoverished couple made their way to a land of opportunity on the other side of a desert divide. For much of the journey, these undocumented immigrants traveled by foot and under cover of darkness. They were determined to provide a constructive future for their son, though it meant being uprooted from the culture they knew—and the omnipresent chance of deportation.
Eventually, the family settled in a third country and grew reasonably secure; they no longer had to watch their backs, at least not every day. The boy learned a language other than that spoken at home. He learned a skilled trade as well, and competed against native-born citizens for jobs of work. He made something of a name for himself—not merely as a carpenter, but as a zealot in the cause of unhesitant mercy. His name was Jesus.
This occurred some two millennia ago, during the ancien régimes of Egypt, Judea, and Galilee. Yet still today, more than two billion people in two hundred nations of the world tell this old story every year in the month of December, as an affirmation of their adherence to the teachings of a Jewish moralist, deified as Jesus Christ.
But there is a cancer on Christianity: the ugly behavior of some Americans who we can be reasonably certain call themselves Christian, as they define, or rather demean, a great religion. By the shameless conduct they exhibit on the border between the United States and Mexico, they reject what they so often and so loudly and so mindlessly claim to believe.
Some years ago, America’s right-wing fanatics expropriated the honorable term “patriot.” Sadly, the term “Christian” now carries a similarly creepy connotation.
Were the boy-Jesus alive today and trekking through the Mexican desert, ragged and weary and in need of sanctuary in the U.S., he would be met at the border by jeering adults coldly reminiscent of the flag-waving, bible-thumping white bigots who taunted black children trying to attend desegregated schools in the South in the 1950s and ‘60s. Now come the same tribe of snarling, flag-waving, white anti-Christians—posses of men and women with guns on their hips and hate their hearts, with fevered fantasies about evil children of the Latino persuasion. Since last October, these snarlers and thumpers have provided the first impressions of el Norte for a flood of some fifty-two thousand unaccompanied minors, some as young as three, seeking asylum from deadly violence in the Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These children were sent on their odysseys by desperate parents who would rather their sons and daughters suffer bigotry and hunger in the United States than die at their doorsteps in the crossfire of narco-trafficking gang warfare, the concomitant of America’s voracious appetite for cocaine.
Sonia Nazario—a Los Angeles-based author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who shall have much more to say herein—classifies these children as refugees. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that fifty-eight percent of border children cited fear of being murdered as their principal motive for self-exile.
But the hate-consumed call such children “illegal aliens” and would have us believe, as Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert alleges, that the older ones are rapists and all are shot through with communicable diseases—including Ebola, which exists only on the African continent. For an embarrassingly large number of my countrymen, here in this land of immigrants, obedience to unrealistic mythology and prejudicial outlook is more comfortable than factual knowledge, critical thought, or the unconditional charitable duty that Jesus said is required of those who speak his name.
It is helpful during a nation’s shameful times to consider the better angels of its populace, in better times. Among these are children, to be sure, and the nineteenth-century American poet Emma Lazarus.
In her final years, Ms. Lazarus (1849-1887) wrote “The New Colossus,” a sonnet that captures the moral essence of the Statue of Liberty—the monumental copper sculpture, designed by the Alsace-born artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) that graces the New York harbor.
A gift to America from the admiring people of France, the statue has welcomed penniless immigrants to America since 1886. Funds for its construction were raised, in part, by schoolchildren throughout France who donated their centimes over a period of ten years. During the same period, the schoolchildren of New York City donated their pennies and nickels and dimes to build the statue’s concrete foundation and pedestal. Etched on that pedestal are these inspired words from Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
For those in Texas and elsewhere who object to the foregoing—should they be aware of it—and doubtless given to invoking the Holy Bible as the last word on morality, I would remind them of God’s command in Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger that sojourneth among you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shalt love him as thyself.”
Youthful sojourners with names like Esteban and Ximena and Hector and Rosalita must now throw themselves on the dubious mercy of an American legal system headed by John Roberts, the stunningly obtuse chief justice of a stunningly regressive U.S. Supreme Court. Four months ago, in leading his court to repeal the most critical sections of civil rights law attained with the spillage of blood in the streets, Justice Roberts committed the following to the canon of American jurisprudential literature: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Yahoo politicians of the Republican Tea Party and affiliated media jingoists assure the anti-Christian snarlers that soon enough the government will send to packing fifty-two thousand little brown “illegals.” In light of fecklessness on the part of the opposition Democratic Party, this is no idle prediction. Since taking the oath of office in January 2009, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, “has deported immigrants at a faster rate than any other president in U.S. history, nearly…two million people,” according to a cover article in The Nation magazine of March 31.
The article further noted, “On a typical day, there are over thirty thousand [mostly Latino] immigrants imprisoned in the world’s largest immigration detention system. Most deportees never see an attorney or have a hearing before a judge before they are expelled from the country.”
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008—signed into law by ex-President George W. Bush, a hero to right-wing comrades who remain in power in Washington—migrants from countries that are non-contiguous to U.S. borders have the right to claim asylum in this country’s immigration courts, on the basis of evidentiary threat to their physical welfare. To date, none of the tens of thousands of children who have fled the Central American republics of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been processed through the courts. The reason: loudmouths of the Republican Tea Party, cowards of the opposition Democratic Party, and even Mr. Obama are pushing to alter the Protection Act.
“Obama wants to change that law so that they’re not given their fair day in court to argue whether they’re refugees or not,” said Ms. Nazario during a Monday appearance on “The Daily Show,” a popular serio-comic television program hosted by Jon Stewart. “He’s trying to expedite their removal. Shame on him! They need a full, fair hearing with an attorney at their side. In this country, we provide murderers with a public defender—but not children?”
Mr. Stewart’s deadpan reply: “Well, what does a six-year-old who only speaks Spanish need with an attorney?”
The 1974 book “Voyage of the Damned,” co-authored by Gordon Thomas of Wales and Canadian-born television producer Max Morgan-Witts of England, chronicles the last occasion of American refusal to shelter wandering children. (The German author Georg Reinfelder augmented the story with his own book, “MS St. Louis,” published in 2002.)
On June 4, 1939, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter patrolling the waters between Florida and Cuba fired warning shots at the MS St. Louis in order to prevent the German ocean liner from disembarking on American soil with nine hundred and seventy-three unaccompanied Jewish children aboard—refugees from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government. Gustav Schröder, the ship’s daring captain, traversed the Florida coastline in the brave hope of protecting his passengers with deliverance to America.
It was not to be.
Refused earlier entry at the Cuban port of Havana, the captain had faith that America would accept nine hundred-plus children he considered as practically his own. But more and more U.S. cutters began shadowing his vessel, thwarting his ability to land. Herr Schröder considered running the St. Louis aground, but set out instead for Canada—only to be thwarted a third time, forcing a return voyage to Europe. On their return, one-quarter of the German captain’s Jewish children were eventually slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps.
A better America would seek the chance for historical correction.
Ironically, many boys among the weary children arriving each day at the Texas border are named Jesus, a popular appellation in the countries they fled. This gives the nativists yet another grievance: their precious JEE-zuss is pronounced Hay-SOOS by the dark-skinned hordes. To haters, children from the Spanish-speaking side of the border constitute an “invasion” of youngsters eager for “free goodies” dispensed by a black man in the White House, who they variously insist is a Kenyan-Muslim-socialist-homosexual-Nazi-Communist.
People in my country actually say these things—every day. Republican Tea Party politicians they favor rarely contradict their vile rhetoric. Nor are their despicable actions condemned. According to a recent article in the New York Times newspaper, when genuine Christians and their genuine churches called for donations of clean clothes for the border children, anti-Christians from coast to coast responded by sending boxes of underwear soiled with urine and feces.
In Texas, haters are legally permitted to carry weapons in public—and do so at every occasion. Currently, they engage in spitting at and cursing Latino children. They are unencumbered by sympathy, morality, human respect, any sense of social justice or ordinary courtesy—or an objective grasp of Christianity. They thump at the Good Book in the manner of mindless Chinese who waved Mao Tse-tung’s Litle Red Book in the 1960s and ‘70s. They are the truest believers in biblical “severity,” as they reckon the best of consecrated text. On the shaky assumption that they read Scripture, they demonstrate no comprehension.
But—oy!—how they turn out for elections. Religiously, one could say.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who hopes for the Republican Tea Party presidential nomination in 2016, covets the anti-Christian hater vote. The last time he sought his party’s presidential nod, in 2012, he repelled haters, who fell out with Mr. Perry because he expressed tolerance for young Latino immigrants desirous of American education. (Mr. Perry’s impolitic stumble was accompanied by an inability to remember the third of three federal departments he pledged to abolish were he to be elected president. “Oops,” he explained.) This time, things will be different. For one, the governor now sports horn-rimmed spectacles, having become a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person looks like. For another: on July 21, the governor deployed one thousand Army National Guard troops to the border region, complete with machine guns, at a cost to Texas taxpayers of $12 million per month (€8.94 million).
“As all of the Texans who have fallen victim to the crime (sic) at the hands of these criminal aliens will attest to (sic),” said Mr. Perry during a press conference announcing the deployment, “the price of inaction is too high for Texans to pay.”
In her July 11 essay published by the New York Times, a cri de cœur in the cause of official refugee status for children forced into exodus, Sonia Nazario gives a heart-wrenching list of horrors faced by those still at home—and yearning to breathe free. She leads off with the story of Cristian Omar Reyes, an eleven-year-old sixth-grader in the Neuva Suyapa district of Tegucigalpa, Honduras:
[He] tells me he has to get out of Honduras soon—“no matter what.”
In March, his father was robbed and murdered by gangs while working as a security guard protecting a pastry truck. His mother used the life insurance payout to hire a smuggler to take her to Florida. She promised to send for him quickly, but she has not.
Three people he knows were murdered this year. Four others were gunned down on a nearby corner, in the span of two weeks at the beginning of this year. A girl his age resisted being robbed of $5 (€3.73). She was clubbed over the head and dragged off by two men who cut a hole in her throat, stuffed her panties in it, and left her body in a ravine across the street from Cristian’s house.
“I’m going this year,” he tells me.
Ms. Nazario has become a “mighty woman” in her own right as she makes the rounds of newspaper offices, television and radio stations, and government agencies speaking truth to power as a champion of frightened children. Everywhere she goes, she delivers a message of righteous scorn: “It would be a disgrace if this wealthy nation turned its back on the fifty-two thousand children who have arrived since October,” as she wrote in her July essay. “This is not how a great nation treats children.”
Will people of goodwill listen? Will they remember a voyage of the damned of decades ago? Will they moved to make atonement in our time?
Sonia Nazario is an optimist, as are so many of her countrymen living above and beyond the swamp of politics and hate. What surely will give her hope are the results of a survey released Wednesday by the Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit organization focused on the intersection of religion and mainstream social values.
The survey found that a substantial majority of U.S. citizens—69 percent—“say that children arriving from Central America should be treated as refugees and allowed to stay…if authorities determine it is not safe for them to return to their home countries.” The opinion breaks down to 83 percent of self-identified Democrats favoring refugee status, 66 percent of political independents likewise, and even 52 percent of Republicans.
In her Daily Show appearance, Ms. Nazario suggested that morality might yet trump hatred, the cynicism of political establishments in Washington and Texas, and the likes of John Roberts and Rick Perry.
“This is an extraordinary moment,” she said, “for [the rest of us] to stand up and do the right thing.”
— Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag